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David Williamson is often cited as Australia’s greatest living playwright – he’s surely our most prolific. But he may never have so successfully captured the suburban folly of bourgeois Australia as in Don’s Party, which was adapted into this movie in 1976.
It's a slice of our history
It takes place on a real election night, 25 October 1969, in a typical suburban home on Sydney’s North Shore. As James Dibble’s call of the board unfolds on the black and white TV screen from the tallyroom in Canberra, the situation in the house gets as thoroughly and amusingly messy as Australian politics itself.
In 1969, the Coalition had been in power for 20 years, and Don and most of his mates are devout Labor supporters – ‘True Believers’ in Keating’s parlance.
They hope that the swing is on, but sadly for them, it isn’t “Time” just yet. As the night goes on, it becomes clear that Gough Whitlam’s Labor will miss out again, and they grow frustrated and angry – also, drunk.
To rub it in, the movie begins with the PM who triumphed in that election, John Grey Gorton, in a cameo where he gets to utter the greatest cliche in Australian politics – that the only poll that matters is the one on the night.
Our elections are still much the same
These events tend to follow consistent patterns, and I was amused when the ABC commentators tried to make something out of a tiny number of votes, just as they still do. The impassioned, booze-fuelled ranting of Labor supporters also seems to be perennial.
But the movie’s also fascinating as a period piece. For one thing, Don and Kath can somehow afford a gorgeous house with stunning 1960s decor on his teacher’s salary – a far cry from present-day Sydney.
The dialogue's excellent
The script is word-heavy, as befits these characters whose main skill in life is talking. Their chat’s mostly about sex and politics, and the level of misogyny on display is a little disconcerting today.
But Williamson, who wrote the adaptation himself, shifts our sympathies towards the female characters as the story unfolds and the social niceties are stripped away along with the guests’ clothes – there’s a surprising amount of nudity, probably more than would feature in a modern adaptation.
To keep things interesting, a few Liberal-voting guests come along for the ride. At one point, the deliberately dull Simon exclaims “I must say I didn’t realise that university educated people could be so bloody uncouth,” which seems like a perfect summary of the plot.
It's an Aussie classic, mate
The film was made in the Australian film industry’s mid-Seventies heyday – Bruce Beresford directs, Phillip Adams produces, and the cast is a who’s who of the period. Ray Barrett, Graeme Blundell (in a splendid safari suit) and Graham Kennedy all feature. The latter is a delight in the role of the tragicomic Mack, who blunders around the party with a pewter tankard on a chain around his neck, talking about his broken marriage and the significant contribution his photographic endeavours have made to it.
All these years later, the female cast aren’t quite such well-known household names – but Pat Bishop as the despondent Jenny, Veronica Lang as an adventurous Liberal and Jeanie Drynan as the slow-to-erupt volcano of a hostess, are splendid foils for their partners. The latter hasn’t much to do until the final act, but it’s quite an ending, as the story threatens to transform into an Australian Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.
Ultimately, morning breaks on the wreckage with the eerie calm I still recall from decades ago when I did this kind of thing regularly – but overall, the experience is more fun than serious.
Williamson’s gags hold up pretty well so many decades down the track, and once you’ve seen Don’s Party, there’s a danger that you’ll recognise its characters in your own world – from the self-satisfied, ever-pontificating but ultimately hollow Mal to Susan, the teenage would-be libertine who delights in shocking those older than her.
And then there’s the libidinous, amoral but devilishly charming Grainger Cooley – a lawyer who could have been the model for Richard Roxburgh’s Rake, and probably went on to political office himself.
I’ve seen Don’s Party on stage a few times, and even went along to the recent sequel, Don Parties On, but this movie version may well be the ultimate version of Williamson’s story. The action intercuts sharply between different rooms in a way that isn’t possible in the theatre – and on stage, nobody can jump in an actual pool – a key moment in any out-of-control-party.
It'll get you in the mood for a double dissolution
It’s astonishing to think the night which provided the setting for Williamson’s drama took place nearly 50 years ago now. But the situation has been replayed many times since, and could well unfold again on 2 July, with Labor in touching distance, but the pundits backing a return of the Coalition.
Don’s Party should be mandatory viewing for anyone with an interest in Australian parties, whether political or the equally messy social events. The movie’s somehow both distinctly of its period, and perennial in its themes – Labor fans will recognise the flawed supporters of their own movement, and those on the Liberal side will find much to amuse them, too.
And if you’re planning to have a few friends over this election night, you’ll want to watch Don’s Party for a few dos and don’ts. Do serve something more interesting than Twisties, and whatever you do, don’t wake the baby.
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